Amid injuries, Champions League struggles and off-field issues, Neymar has been linked with a dramatic return to Barcelona. We examine his turbulent time in the French capital and consider what comes next…
Two summers ago, Neymar became the world’s most expensive player ever when Paris Saint-Germain paid a jaw-dropping £200m to sign him from Barcelona.
Fast forward to 2019 and, amid reports the Brazilian could be looking for a return to the Nou Camp, it’s safe to say the move hasn’t worked out how Neymar or PSG would have hoped.
Neymar has scored 51 goals in 58 appearances and added plenty of clips to his highlights package by tormenting Ligue 1 defenders. But he has come no closer to winning the coveted individual Ballon d’Or honour he is chasing, with off-field issues damaging his reputation, while PSG’s Champions League dream remains as elusive as ever.
Here, we speak to French football journalist Tom Williams about Neymar’s two seasons in Paris, how he is viewed in the French capital and how a return to Barcelona would be viewed…
Neymar was brought to PSG to help them win the Champions League but they’ve been knocked out in the round of 16 in the past two seasons. So has his move been a failure?
Ultimately, yes, it has been a failure – but that’s not the full story. In many ways, he’s been a massive success. When fit, his performances have been absolutely sensational and from a marketing and credibility perspective, he’s put PSG on the map internationally in a way that no other player could have done.
For instance, I doubt the hugely successful kit deal with Air Jordan would have come about had Neymar not been at Parc des Princes. But PSG signed him to win the Champions League and he’s not helped them do that.
He got injured midway through their elimination by Real Madrid in the last 16 in 2017/18 (having underperformed in the first leg) and was injured again when they went out of the competition against Manchester United last season.
In fact, if you had to pick an image that summed up his time in Paris so far, you’d probably go for the one of him looking on dumbly from the Parc des Princes touchline, dressed in his civvies, after Marcus Rashford’s penalty sent United into the quarter-finals.
If he leaves PSG this summer, he’ll be remembered as a hugely expensive gamble who briefly injected French football with a big dose of glamour, but whose time at the club, ultimately, didn’t quite work out
There was huge focus on him when he arrived in Paris in 2017 – so has he lived up to the hype and the price tag?
In individual performance and marketing terms, I’d say that he has. It’s sometimes overlooked, but some of Neymar’s performances for PSG have been absolutely spell-binding. He got a (rare) 9/10 rating from L’Équipe after scoring twice on his home debut in a 6-2 win against Toulouse in August 2017 and that basically set the bar for what followed.
He’s been L’Équipe’s top-rated player for both of his seasons at PSG to date and his goals-to-game ratio is extremely good. He’s formed a great partnership with Kylian Mbappe and right up until his most recent injury, he was the team’s most influential player. Mbappe may score more goals, but it’s Neymar who runs the show.
So what’s gone wrong and is he solely to blame for his off-field behaviour?
He hasn’t helped himself, you have to say. He hasn’t always appeared 100 per cent committed to the PSG ‘project’ and I think we’re still waiting to hear his first interview in French. But the club has to bear some of the responsibility for indulging him so much – allowing him to skip unimportant games, giving him permission to go back to Brazil for his sister’s birthdays and so on.
It’s also not his fault that he ended up playing in such a dangerously imbalanced team, which is down to PSG’s dreadful recruitment – Neymar and Mbappe aside – over the last two years.
And had he not been rushed back from injury in time for the World Cup last year, he probably wouldn’t have suffered a relapse last season, so the Brazilian Football Confederation can’t be absolved of blame either.
Would PSG be better off without him?
That’s a tricky question. In purely sporting terms, they will obviously miss Neymar, because he is a generational talent who can win games single-handedly. When he was playing well, particularly under Thomas Tuchel, absolutely everything went through him, and you can’t say the same for Mbappe, exceptional player though he is.
But if PSG can recoup anything like the £200m they paid Barcelona to sign him, they’ll have a huge amount of money to reinvest in the squad. And when you look at how PSG came off the rails in the second half of last season, that investment is sorely needed
So would a return to Barcelona for Neymar be best for all parties?
It’s hard to say. Suppose he stays, gets back to full fitness and inspires PSG to the Champions League title next season?
But ultimately, yes, it does feel that way. He’s clearly not happy in Paris and wants to go back to Barca, and PSG could clearly do with the money.
If he does leave, it’ll just be a huge pity that those flickers of magic we’ve seen from him never led to anything more than a couple of Ligue 1 titles.